'Janine Jackson: When Saudi Arabia officially lifted a ban on women driving last June, it made for a great photo-op. Time magazine had a video feature in which they rode along with the country’s first women taxi drivers. 60 Minutes had already declared Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a “liberator of women.” For the New York Times editorial board, the “young and brash leader” is in some ways “just what his country needs,” because “he would allow concerts, and would consider reforming laws tightly controlling the lives of women.” But US media are only slowly coming to acknowledge that beyond the photo-op lies a very different reality.
Journalist Sarah Aziza writes on these issues, among others, for the Intercept, as well as other outlets. She joins us now by phone from Brooklyn. Welcome to CounterSpin, Sarah Aziza.
Sarah Aziza: Thank you so much for having me.
JJ: You actually saw reporters swarming on the photo-op of Saudi women driving. And one can see why: It’s both a symbolic and a material change that seems to say that Saudi Arabia, under the influence particularly of Mohammed bin Salman, is on the road to reform. But subsequent and even previous events should tell us that that’s not really the story here. What should we know about bin Salman as liberator of Saudi women?
SA: Yeah, I would say that it is not the full story. It is true that there are some women—particularly who come from liberal families, middle- or upper-class families—who are enjoying the benefit of these limited reforms, the increased flexibility for women in the workforce. And the ability to drive was no small thing, symbolically or practically.
Sarah Aziza: “One of the themes of bin Salman’s reign is this absolute top-down, unilateral approach, that any rights or privileges granted to his subjects must be seen as coming directly from him, and a product of his will and his will alone.”
But on the much grander scale, Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, as we often see him referred to in the press, has ushered in an era of really unprecedented crackdowns and repression of all forms of political speech. But also just a general chill of authoritarianism that rendered even ordinary citizens afraid to speak about the royal family, to discuss their opinions whatsoever when it comes to the reforms that are happening in their society, or even everyday topics.
Whether it’s issues of culture or commerce, there’s just this sense that, yes, there are movie theaters and concert halls people are enjoying attending, but no one there feels the freedom to speak openly about anything anymore, on the issue of women in particular.
It’s perhaps the most monstrous paradox of MBS’s reign so far, is the way that he’s branded himself as a liberator of women. He’s defended to the foreign press that women in Saudi Arabia are equal, absolutely equal, and that he is just here to empower and raise them up.
And in particular, in relation to the women driving, that’s the most perhaps egregious and awful irony, was that practically all the women who had campaigned for the right to drive—some of them dedicating decades of their lives to peaceful protest and demonstration and petitioning of the government to obtain the right to drive, among other rights—they were all in jail when the day finally came, when all of the reporters were swarming these open lots, these choreographed spectacles that look so good on the front pages of newspapers with these smiling women, but in the meantime, the women that really had the legacy of pushing for these reforms were in detention. They’ve not yet faced trial or even formal charges, not yet had access to legal counsel, haven’t seen their family. And we’ve had recent reports in the past few months that several of them, at least, have faced systemic torture and sexual abuse while in detention, at the same time that MBS was using their cause as evidence of his credentials as a reformer.'
Read more: ‘Mohammed bin Salman Has Ushered in an Era of Unprecedented Crackdowns and Repression of Political Speech’
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